Inside a Generative AI Tournament for Employees

By Scott Kirsner |  January 9, 2024

As the annual “March Madness” college basketball tournament was approaching in 2023, Ryan Pletka of Black & Veatch was thinking about how to plug into the excitement that surrounds it to get his colleagues thinking about generative AI. 

Ryan Pletka, Vice President of Innovation and Strategy, Black & Veatch

Pletka is Vice President of Innovation and Strategy at the $4 billion construction and engineering company. And the internal tournament he launched — around exploring potential ways Black & Veatch might employ generative AI — has stretched into 2024, with five finalists competing for several thousand dollars in prize money. (The program itself has already been awarded an Unconventional Award in employee enablement from T-Mobile.)

Pletka walked us through how the company’s Gen AI Tournament came together, and shared several slides detailing its structure.

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• Origins. “About a year ago, when ChatGPT came on  the scene, we started to get people say, ‘Have you seen this? We think it might have business value,’” Pletka says. “We set up a message group on Microsoft Teams for people who were interested; that balloon to 200 people.” The group discussed many ways the company might use it, but it wasn’t clear which ones might deliver the most business value.

• Confronting the concerns. Obviously, there were concerns about liability issues, wrong answers, and uploading proprietary information to a public generative AI platform like OpenAI. Pletka says it took about two months, working with IT, legal, and other internal groups, to create a policy and guardrails that would allow experimentation.

• Setting up an internal sandbox. Black & Veatch decide to use Microsoft’s Azure AI Studio  platform to provide employees with access to generative AI tools in a safe environment. “We shut down access to the external-facing ChatGPT,” Pletka says. “So folks had to use the internal version, and they had to click a box that said they’d read the policy” about proper usage and transparency, particularly when generative AI might be used as part of a client deliverable.

About 2000 of Black & Veatch’s 12,000 employees had been through that process as of late 2023, Pletka said. Several hundred, he said, are “active, heavy users.”

• Communicating in a creative way. When it was time to announce the tournament, Pletka used generative AI to rewrite a standard corporate announcement in the style of sports announcer Dick Vitale — with lots of emoji. He also did a lot of “one-on-one encouragement” of some of those more active members of the messaging group to get them to submit ideas.

• Submission rounds. An initial round just focused on spelling out use cases that might be feasible, and create business value. Nearly 150 short submissions came in; roughly 40, Pletka says, took the next step of creating a 90-second video going into more detail on their use case. One example: how might generative AI help summarize all of the applicable building codes and standards that govern a specific location where Black & Veatch may be building a project — and perhaps automate some aspects of the design based on those codes? Or could AI automatically count the number of doors and windows in a blueprint? Pletka and colleagues chose the top 20 ideas, and those submitters were asked to create five-minute videos going deeper. “We wanted to know if we could develop something unique and novel to our business — not meeting note-taking, for instance — that could give us a competitive advantage.”

• The latest. As of January 2024, five finalists are moving forward. The goal is to have a working prototype of each use case i 2024, working with four or five different outside tech vendors to build them. (“Out-of-the-box solutions were not enough to get us there with some of these ideas,” Pletka says.) Finalists have already received several thousand dollars in cash prizes, and the winner will get an additional payout. All of the ideas, Pletka says, “are promising. We could build out all of them.” 

He says that rather than waiting for a top-down process to define AI strategy and detail use cases, the tournament was a way of “getting people excited about how they can use it. It jump-started the process.” 

InnoLead members can download PowerPoint slides related to the Black & Veatch tournament in our Template & Document library.